Hack the Library: An Alternate Reality Game

The following pages are the lecture notes from a demonstration presented at THATcamp Louisiana, a digital humanities conference at University of Louisiana at Lafayette in the Spring of 2017. In the demonstration, I discuss and showcase my alternate reality game (ARG) Hack the Library for mobile phones, which I created to aid my students in learning library research skills. Since creating the game in the Fall of 2016, I have used it in 3 of my courses. Each time, students tell me how much they enjoy the game, and how much they have learned about the LSU library system and resources. Note: I have also included screenshots from the accompanied PowerPoint presentation where applicable.

slide 1In the Fall of 2016, I created an ARG (alternate reality game) to help students learn skills related to library research. My ARG was called Hack the Library, and it was created through the ARIS ARG maker.

The set up for my game, which players are told in the introduction screen, is:

In high school, you spent night after night cracking the computer code of any website you could get your hands on. After a brief solo career, you joined a hacker group known as Dec0de, until the group’s mysterious leader, Cap, was rumored to have been caught hacking into government documents. After hearing about their leader’s arrest, the group disbanded, and you decided to leave your past life behind you and start your freshman year at LSU with a clean slate. That is, until one day….

The player is contacted by a mysterious person, who asks them to gather information from an article available on LSU Discovery. After finding the information in the article about mishaps in the Domain Name System Security Extension (DNSSEC), the player and the mysterious stranger begin following a trail of clues left by a former member of Dec0de known by the alias Gor3c. The player is also contacted by another member of Dec0de, Murd0k, who claims that the mysterious stranger is Cap, and urges the player to stop sending the information he/she finds to the stranger, and send it to him instead.

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After all of the clues are followed, the player must decide if they want to give the info to the stranger or to Murd0k. The player receives a different ending screen based on this decision.

The clues of the game establish different learning objectives. The first clue, which I’ve mentioned, familiarizes players with the LSU Discovery database.
The second clue teaches them about the location and offerings of the library Research Guides, and the location of the reference section on the first floor of Middleton.

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The second clue also exposes players to the library’s call number system, but it isn’t until the third clue that they have to use call numbers to find a book in the stacks. The player is encouraged to ask a librarian for help in locating the book, because I wanted students to learn not to fear asking librarians for help. There are two major ways information is divulged: one is through character dialogue and the other is through Quest blurbs. If I could fit the information in a way that seemed organic and in-character, I did. But if it didn’t seem organic, then I added it to the Quest tab.

Once they’ve found the book, players have to use the index to locate the appropriate page number where the next clue will be. The quest for this task contains a blurb about indexes and their usefulness in finding information within a larger work.

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Another clue brings them to the government documents in Middleton, where they have to ask for help locating a specific congressional hearing. The quest for this clue mentions that these congressional hearings are valuable sources for studying the history of controversial topics which might be useful for their Issue Analysis paper.
The last clue brings them to the Digital Scholarship Lab, and it’s here that they must make their final decision and receive their chosen ending.

There are some objectives that I wanted to have in the game, but I couldn’t figure out a way to incorporate them into this iteration of the game. This includes source evaluation skills and the use of databases other than LSU Discovery. But I’m already thinking of how I can continue the game’s story line and incorporate these objectives either into the base game, or in a possible sequel.

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Besides the physical library and the ARIS mobile app, I used a few other platforms to divulge information to players. This included Gor3c’s blog, which had posts and comments from other Dec0de members which lead to some of the clues and further develops the story.
The game also includes two URLs which players must find and go to. One leads to a photo with the location of the next clue, and another is the final “information” URL which the player choses to give to the stranger or Murd0k. This URL includes fake code, with the implication that this is code meant to be used to access illegal government files. http://xc0ldecde.weebly.com/

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Another media I used in game construction, besides character photos from Flickr was screen-capture video. I used the video as instructional tool to find certain areas of the LSU library website. Of course, this was filmed in the character of the stranger. (1:07 time stamp)
The final media I used was the creation of fake news articles through Mozilla’s X-Ray Goggles page remixer. This allowed me to take any news page online, I used the Advocate, and create fake headlines and news stories. This was how I made my 2 unique endings, and tell some background information about the stranger and Dec0de. Here are my game over screens:

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As you can see, one ending shows that you, the student, aided in the arrest of cybercriminals, and the other one shows that you were arrested for participating in cybercrimes. I did so because I wished to included a basic morality system in the game, which would provide players with multiple endings based on their decisions. This, I felt, would add a small illusion of consequence to the actions performed in the game by the player.
Overall, I’m pleased with the game, even if I didn’t get to all of my original objectives. I plan on playing the game with my 1001 students in the fall. But all the pieces are in place right now, and you can access the game on the ARIS app if you want to play it yourself. I can also show you the webmap and code of the game, if you’d like to see it. Thank you. (Q&A Time, show Webmap and code.)